Emphysema causes damage to the walls between the air sacs in the lungs. As a result, the air sacs lose their shape. This damage can also destroy the walls of the air sacs themselves, leading to fewer and larger air sacs instead of many tiny ones. When this happens, the amount of gas exchange in the lungs in reduced – meaning the bloodstream gets less oxygen. Emphysema is one of the diseases that makes up COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

The number one cause of emphysema in the United States is smoking. Emphysema can also be caused by other lung irritants such as pollution, manufacturing dust and fumes. However, a rare genetic condition called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can also cause emphysema.

The symptoms of emphysema will depend on the severity of the disease. The most common symptom that is associated with emphysema is trouble breathing. If you are experiencing shortness of breath for a long period of time, see your doctor right way to determine if it is emphysema.

Your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms, smoking history and family history of lung disease. They will also order tests to determine if your symptoms are caused by emphysema or another condition. Possible tests they may run include chest x-rays, CT scans, blood tests and lung function tests.

If you’re diagnosed with emphysema, while it cannot be cured, there are treatments available to improve your quality of life and slow the disease’s progress. Some options for treatment include:

  • Quit smoking – First and foremost, quit smoking! Continuing to smoke if you have emphysema will speed up the progression of the disease.
  • Medication – Including bronchodilators, which relax the muscles around the airways to make breathing easier.
  • Oxygen therapy – Oxygen therapy can be used to help you breathe better if you have severe emphysema.
  • Nutritional advice – People with emphysema often have trouble with their weight in both directions. Nutritional advice can help patients maintain a healthy weight.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation – This program can help to build your physical fitness and teach you breathing techniques and strategies for helping with daily activities.

The best way to prevent getting emphysema is to avoid smoking, secondhand smoke and other lung irritants.